Sunday, 22 May 2022

Sharp Practice in the Sudan

Having painted up sets of the Perry 28mm Mahdists and British infantry for the Sudan I've been trying to find a suitable set of skirmish rules. 

The first set that came to mind was The Men Who Would Be Kings (TMWWBK) published by Osprey. Written by Daniel Mersey, they are a variation of his popular line of rules using the Lion Rampant engine. 

We played one game, which was enjoyable enough, but they didn't really grab us. When it comes to handling medieval warfare I like the slightly chaotic nature of Lion Rampant and while the rules for TMWWBK worked perfectly well there was something about them that just didn't give the same level of tension or uncertainty. 

I suspect it comes from the difference in the way units activate in their turn. Where as in Lion Rampant every unit must achieve an activation dice roll in order to carry out an action, in TMWWBK units have certain 'free actions' that are automatic and don't require a roll. Often these are the types of actions you are most likely to want to do with that unit type - firing for British regulars or moving for tribal groups. While I can see the logic behind that, it does mean the game unfolds in a much more predictable manner.

Having said that the rules do offer an element of unpredictability in the form of leader values and traits. These are determined pre-game with random dice rolls and in all fairness we didn't use these (although Mersey himself suggests you may wish to ignore them when learning the rules). From what I can tell they appear to offer quite large swings in the attributes of leaders. There is a heavy emphasis on Hollywood type character traits, some of which are quite amusing, but I've heard from other gamers that the random generation and the fact they can have a significant impact on a unit's performance has a lot of implications for how the games play out. I like a game with narrative but I'm just not sure that's the sort of narrative I'm looking for.

It's not that our game lacked moments of drama. The Gardner gun crew below are pictured shortly before they came to a grisly end when they were overrun by the Beja in the palm grove.

Despite a few highlights it was clear TMWWBK wasn't the rule set I was looking for. A few months later I was intrigued to follow a Sudan variation for the Too Fat Lardies rules Sharp Practice that John Savage was working on. He posted regular updates on Twitter and I was pleased when they finally saw publication in the 2021 Lard Magazine. The core rules mechanics for things like command and control and movement could be readily adapted, however John had given a lot more consideration to the effect of breech loading rifles and the very different nature of close combat during the conflict. While I've used Sharp Practice to play games set during the American War of Independence they have been between fairly conventional forces. Using them for the Sudan would attempt something more ambitious by adapting the rules to asymmetric warfare. 

I've had the opportunity to play two games in quick succession using those rules. The first was joining a game in 15mm at a club I attend from time to time. We played the escort scenario from the Sharp Practice rule book with a force of Egyptians accompanying a consignment of arms through hostile territory.

The table was fairly simple, with the centre an area of flat ground in between two parallel rocky escarpments. A ruined monastery by an oasis gave the Egyptians a refuge or anchor point around which they could defend the wagons. I didn't take a lot of pictures and so won't attempt to write a detailed AAR but instead I hope I can give an impression of how the rules played out.

The Egyptians would start from the table edge at the top of the picture above. I was playing the Beja and they would deploy from the centre of the left hand side of the table. They had two groups of skirmishers with a movable deployment point which they placed in a rocky outcrop near the Egyptian table edge. While the Beja had the numbers, they faced a well armed force of infantry armed with breech loaders and a Nordenfeldt machine gun. 

So how did things play out? The challenge for the Beja player is to close with the Egyptians but avoid doing so in the face of devastating rifle fire. Taking too long moving to contact across open ground was likely to prove disastrous (if not suicidal). However they have a few things in their favour, like local knowledge and fervour. This manifests itself in a number of rules that allow for faster movement and good use of terrain. In this particular scenario the Beja are not forced to move to the Egyptians, as it is they that must move across the table. Patience on behalf of the Mahdists could be rewarded if they bide their time and allow the Egyptians themselves to close some of that distance.

The Egyptian infantry formed a firing line that covered much of the open ground and it struck me as futile to send the Beja spearmen out to engage them. The firing line was anchored on a patch of rough ground and Bashi Bazouk skirmishers were positioned there to guard the flank. The Beja skirmishers were able to deploy from their movable deployment point and engage them with fire. The exchanges between the two groups of skirmishers inflicted the odd casualty but what made the difference was the ability of other Beja units to make use of the movable deployment point now that their skirmishers had opened it up.

This produced one of the defining moments of the game. The Beja spearmen have the Tactical ability which allows them to Ambuscade using two command cards. With a 12" deployment distance this enabled two groups of spearmen to deploy from the movable deployment point and immediately move into contact with the skirmishers in the rough ground. After a couple of rounds of fisticuffs the Bashi Bazouk were broken. Unfortunately for the Egyptians they routed directly down the infantry line inflicting a great deal of shock on all three groups as they went. 

In the picture below you can see the spearmen on the right after they emerge from the rough ground. They then attacked the first group of Egyptian infantry inflicting casualties and more shock, enough to break them. This also caused the formation itself to break and put the Egyptian infantry in disarray.

That series of events inflicted a crippling blow on their force morale, but was not decisive. I had to commit more Beja spearmen, who left the cover of the escarpment and moved on the Egyptians. 

Advancing across the open is dangerous but each Beja group arrives on the table with a number of Fervour points (a maximum of five, determined by the roll of 1D6). This acts like a reverse form of shock and impacts units in two ways. First, as shock is inflicted Fervour points are removed until there are none remaining, from which point onwards shock is accumulated as normal. Second, each point of Fervour allows a unit to add 1" of movement. As my spearmen crossed the open ground I was hoping their fervour would help carry them through the Egyptian fire. However, this is where the breech loading rifles demonstrated their power.

Two groups of Egyptian infantry had taken up position in the ruined monastery and were able to dish out a considerable amount of fire as the Beja advanced. It was soon clear this sort of approach was not viable for the Mahdists and they were beaten back.

However the distraction meant the Egyptians were unable to cover their other flank and groups of Beja spearmen took full advantage to move rapidly and block the path of the wagons.

With Egyptian force morale very low the writing was on the wall and they conceded defeat. It was a good game that played quickly and was very enjoyable. We did make a few minor rules errors but nothing that would have changed the outcome of the game. Overall I was impressed with the way the rules worked and gave a good feel for the period. While there is no doubt breech loading rifles are deadly, as they should be, if the Beja play to their strengths then there are ways to limit the effectiveness of that fire.

The second game was at my regular club where we played in 28mm. This gave me the chance to use my Mahdists and for the first time play on the desert terrain cloth that I created during lockdown last year (you can read this post on how it was made). Once again we would pit Beja against Egyptians and my opponent Charles could field his lovely collection of Copplestone figures.

We kept things simple and chose the encounter scenario. Our main focus was on making sure we were using the rules correctly. The table was fairly open and initially I feared this would play into the hands of the Egyptians with their superior firepower. Given the asymmetric nature of the war I suspect an important part of games set in Sudan is scenario design and I did wonder if selecting one that was perhaps better suited to two more conventional forces would be a good way to assess how well the rules work. Time would tell.

Bashi Bazouk skirmishers were the first to deploy using a movable deployment point and took up position on the roof of a house. They hadn't been there for long before a random event caused a fire to start in the house. Charles reasoned that the chances of a Tiffin card being drawn as the first card in a turn was fairly remote and he would risk remaining where he was. A decision he was to come to regret not long afterwards, much to our amusement. 

The main threat came from three groups of Egyptian infantry under the command of a Status III leader. They were able to advance in the middle of the table thanks to a couple of fortunate consecutive card draws for their leader. It seemed to confirm my fear this might be a short game.

When the Beja spearmen appeared it was clear they would have to face the Egyptian infantry with no intervening cover.

They were all brimming with fervour (marked by the red dice) and I'd have to hope this would be sufficient to carry them across the open ground.

Play of two command cards with a leader's activation allows the Mahdists to use the special rule 'Swift as the Desert Wind' and gain additional movement. This was a good time to play it and when combined with the bonus movement for fervour was the moment to hurl them forward at the Egyptians.

While it enabled them to cover a good distance, it didn't bring them close enough. That gave the Egyptians time to fan out into line and open fire.

While the breech loaders inflicted casualties and soon reduced the fervour to shock, the Beja had come close enough that they were able to charge into contact before the Egyptian fire could beat them back.

Unfortunately the charge saw their formation fall apart as the groups all moved at different speeds (if you can actually call a 'mob' a formation). That meant the fisticuffs turned into a series of individual charges and small fights. Nonetheless Beja persistence saw the Egyptian line break up and finally fall apart.

I didn't take many more pictures but another three groups of Beja spearmen were far less successful and were held up by a mix of Gardner gun fire and the mounted fire of Egyptian cavalry. Once again the game demonstrated the need for the Beja to move fast and make the most of their advantages. This game was a tale of two battles both of which demonstrated different aspects of the rules. When the Beja can charge into contact they can cause significant disruption but if they can be held at a distance by rifle and machine gun fire then they are quickly rendered ineffective.

Despite all this it was a very close game. When it came time to finish both sides were at force morale two and the game could quite easily have gone either way. It also feels right. On equal terms across a flat battlefield the Beja stand little chance against breech loaders and machine guns and rightly so. However if they can use the terrain and their fervour to their advantage and come to grips with the enemy then the outcome can be very different. I thought this last game demonstrated that very well.

I'm very interested to see how this all plays out using British regulars whose superior musketry should prove far more lethal than that of the Egyptians. That certainly should be a challenging task for the Mahdist player but there is enough in these rules to think there are ways that they can try to overcome the odds.


  1. Good looking games, always interesting to see rules played out...but whatever happened to the Bashi-Bazouks in the burning building?

    1. Ha, I should have said, shouldn’t I? Well the building caught fire, killing two of the Bashi Bazouk and wounding their leader.

  2. The 'Fervour' rating to offset initial shock results is nice idea, but I can't help feeling that the Beja are missing the advantage of 'Mass'. Bigger groups could obviously take more shock before breaking but the way shock reduces firing and fighting dice that would render them ineffective - a puzzler.
    Perhaps they ought to get the 'Tomahawks' characteristic, those big swords are every bit as scary as a tomahawk. Another idea would be to allow them move 'tactically' (CoC) to represent their ability to exploit the lie of the land; they could then sneak up to a more effective charge range? These are just ideas... interested to see how these games develop.

    1. Beja are in groups of 10 but could be bigger. We found the balance between fervour and shock worked okay though. I found the key is to keep the Beja moving as fast as you can once they come under fire. They can ‘go to ground’ which gives them something similar to CoC’s tactical, so that is an option although in my experience speed is the key using the longer deployment distance, movable deployment points and all the other things like fervour.

  3. Great looking game. I'll have to pick up the supplement.

    1. Well worth investigating, some well thought out mechanics.

  4. OK! Don't keep us in suspense> What DID happen to the Bashi-Bazouks in the burning building?

    1. Ah yes, the Bashi Bazouk! Well, the building caught fire, killing two of the Bashi Bazouk and wounding their leader. That left them outside in the open where they remained fairly ineffective for the rest of the game.

  5. I adapted SP for Colonial gaming, with 'Breach loader' cards allowing units so equipped to fire. I do like the idea of 'Fervour' dice as a way of making native formations more durable.

    1. Thanks. Fervour works well and feels right. The adaptation has been well thought out and I know John did a lot of play testing to get the right feel and balance.

  6. Interesting - this is certainly a setting I'd like to explore one day in an ideal world (in fact I have most of the models needed for a core-force of British Regulars which were collected many years ago for a now defunct Victorian Science Fiction project!) but time is always the great enemy! Looking forward to seeing more of your project.

  7. Superb armies and terrain!